Republicans debate whether to cut or borrow to boost military spending

Pentagon will get billions more while the rest of government is kept on a strict diet

Republican presidential hopefuls are at war with each other over the budget for war.

In the Senate on Thursday, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio proposed billions of extra dollars for the Pentagon. So did Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, but, unlike Rubio, the $76-billion defense spending increase he offered was to be offset by cuts in other programs.

Paul and Rubio are both seriously contemplating campaigns for the GOP presidential nomination, and Paul said the argument about how to pay -- or not pay -- for more military outlays shows that there are now two sides in the nomination fight; those who have the courage to rein in the debt and those who prefer to spend more for defense without matching reductions.

“I think there are a great deal of problems for people who want to argue that they are fiscal conservatives and yet would simply borrow hundreds of billions of dollars for defense,” Paul said. “I think it is irresponsible and dangerous to the country to borrow so much money to add into defense.”

Paul may have been more ideologically pure in his thinking, but he did not get many Republicans to go along with him. His amendment to the budget bill lost on a vote of 96 to 4.

Rubio’s approach had the support of another defense hawk and possible presidential contender, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. Graham chastened Paul and the deficit-obsessed members of the GOP caucus, saying they would not be the ones going to Iraq to fight Islamic State, it will be American troops. “And when they go,” Graham said, “I hope they are well-trained and well-equipped.”

Justifying the lack of offsetting cuts in his proposed amendment, Rubio insisted that every other concern pales in comparison with the need for a strong defense. The GOP’s one officially announced candidate for president, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, was seen standing on the floor of the Senate mulling over Rubio’s plan as if there were a budget hawk on one shoulder and a defense hawk on the other, each pecking at his ears. The defense hawk won. Cruz sided with Rubio, but the amendment was defeated by a vote of 68 to 32.

In the wee hours this morning, the Senate passed a budget that matches the $612 billion in defense spending proposed by President Obama, although the Republican budget writers put more of that money into the Pentagon’s Overseas Contingency Operations account. The OCO was set up to pay for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq but has been kept alive as a convenient off-budget fund -- some critics call it “a slush fund” -- that hides the money from deficit calculations.

In the version of the 2016 budget just passed by House Republicans, the OCO gets $38 billion more than Obama allocated, thus allowing Speaker of the House John Boehner to claim his caucus is meeting budget-reduction targets while they are actually increasing spending. When the House and Senate budgets get reconciled, chances are good much of the increased OCO funding will be retained.

Meanwhile, as the Pentagon gets more, the rest of government will be kept on a very strict diet -- the rest of government that does things such as fund scientific research, conduct diplomacy, support education, protect the environment, sustain the national parks, build roads and bridges, inspect the food we eat and help out the poor. Even though military spending has gone down a bit in recent years, it still takes up more than half of the discretionary spending in the federal budget. By contrast, the much maligned food stamp program gets just a sliver of the 1% of discretionary spending that goes for agriculture and food programs.

And though Republican alarmists insist that America is losing its predominance as adversaries increase their own military budgets, the U.S. still spends as much on defense as the next nine of the top 10 countries combined.

If, as Graham infers, American soldiers are not getting the training and equipment they need, perhaps the answer is not spending more but spending more wisely. When deficit watchers go hunting for wasted government dollars, the Pentagon budget provides a target-rich environment. Bloated spending on unnecessary weapons programs could pay for plenty of training and equipment -- or cover the cost of many, many new highways and bridges, plus education and retraining for the working poor.

Of course, that’s not an idea that is going anywhere soon. Republicans, as well as quite a few Democrats, do not want to wade into the waste because the Pentagon budget is, to a significant extent, a jobs program spread across the many congressional districts where defense contractors do business. So, far from considering cuts or reallocations, the debate over defense spending will remain as it is this week: a fight over whether to pay for increases by taking the money from somewhere else or to simply use smoke, mirrors and slush funds to mask the fact that all the new money for the military is being borrowed.

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